Friday, 3 June 2011

Sepia Saturday 77: The Great Train Wreck

First, I'd like to render my apologies to Alan, who I'm sure didn't intend that his photo prompt for this week's Sepia Saturday installment should precipitate the series of catastrophes that I'm about to present today. Secondly, I'd like to wish him well on his impending journeys, may they be as sedate and uneventful as he wishes, and I trust he won't see my article as a bad portent.

As Alan's image of a late 19th Century locomotive parked at a strangely empty station platform demonstrates, photographers have long found trains to be worthy subjects. It didn't take long after the invention and popularisation of photography for its potential as a medium to report current events to be appreciated. When there weren't any wars being fought, dignitaries visiting, or the local version of Blondin crossing the Niagara Falls on a tightrope, the next best thing was a good old disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Derailment at the Gare de Montparnasse, 22 October 1895
Photographer unknown
Image courtesy of neil on Scribas

One of the most enduring of these photographically captured catastrophes was a train emerging from an unanticipated direction on an upper level of Montparnasse station, Paris in 1895. I remember this image - or one very similar to it - from my teens, in the form of a poster with the succinct caption, "Merde!" and it even made the grade as the subject of one of Colleen Fitzpatrick's recent Forensic Genealogy quizzes.

Image © and courtesy of Alexandre Duarte
Gramado, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, 21 December 2004
Photograph © and courtesy of Alexandre Duarte

This particular mishap has so long captured people's interests that elaborate replicas have been fashioned, such as this one somewhere in Brazil, of all places.

Batavia, New York, 18 February 1885, Photograph by P.B. Hausenknecht, courtesy of The Crooked Lake Review

The photographs of such incidents often became an integral part of the legends surrounding such train wrecks. P. J. Erbley (Paul Worboys), in his article "Slaying the Dragon: Bringing an 'Urban Legend' to its Knees, describes how the result of Batavia photographer P.B. Hausenknecht's good fortune later took on a life of its own. The photo of the piggy-back wreck has been used in railway magazines, on calendars, more recently on T-shirts, featured in an episode of Ripley's Believe it Or Not, and was even employed in the embellishment of the legend of a second, much later, train wreck.

Image © and courtesy of the footnoteMaven
Jonestown, 1889, Stereoview by William H. Rau
Image courtesy of the footnoteMaven & Shades of the Departed

On 31 May 1889 the Johnstown Flood, known locally in Pennsylvania as "The Great Flood of 1889," and resulting from the collapse of a dam upstream, left scenes of such devastation that photographic opportunities abounded, including this bizarre photograph of a double-storey house, upended and dramatically impaled by a massive tree, is if it were some morsel on the end of a toothpick. Several photographers were soon on the ground, accompanying the deluge of reporters from over a hundred newspapers and magazines, quickly publishing dramatic three-dimensional stereoviews which were widely sold, possibly helping to garner sympathy, and therefore funds, for the massive relief effort organised by the then newly formed American Red Cross.

The stereoview shown above, depicting some of the railroad debris at Johnstown (click image for more detail, thanks fM), was taken by Philadelphia photographer and publisher William Herman Rau, who later documented the Boston Fire (1904) and was official photographer to the Lehigh Valley Railroad in Pennsylvania during the early 1890s. "Today, Rau is important for his position linking, through subject and style, key aspects of photography in the 19th and 20th centuries" (Legacy of Light, Cleveland Museum of Art).

Image © The Kodak Museum
Unidentified train wreck, undated, possibly early 1890s
Early Kodak roll film print, Kodak Museum [1]

Once cameras became available to the general public, particularly in the 1890s, it was often the case that witnesses to such disasters were able to document them immediately. No longer did the professional photographer have an exclusive opportunity, as in the case of George Barnard's fortuitous daguerreotype which captured the burning Oswego Mills in July 1853. The image above, from the Kodak Museum and reproduced in Gus Macdonald's History of Photography, is one such example, the distinctive circular format print betraying its origin as an early Kodak roll film camera (No. 1 or No. 2). A throng of men are shown around and on top of the spectacular results of a head-on collision between two trains.

Continuing the fine tradition demonstrated some three decades earlier by an opportunisitic amateur, my grandfather Leslie Payne used the last shot of the roll in his camera to capture some fellow soldiers inspecting the wreckage of a train with which they'd collided. They were on the ultimate leg of a long journey home from fighting with the CEF in the Great War, a journey which for my grandfather had started some five months earlier, with his stopping a machine gun bullet in his left shoulder, somewhere east of Arras (see previous installments Hospital Blues and Back to Canada on the 'Old Reliable').

The print batch number "5 9" stamped in purple ink on the back of the 63 x 42.5 mm paper print is identical to that on photos that he took on board the HMT Olympic a few days earlier, which is why I am fairly certain that they were taken on this journey. The inscription on the reverse, written in black ink, in my grandfather's handwriting, states:
Train wreck, showing rear coach of front troop train, which our train colid"
Presumably he didn't complete the last word.

He then appears to have reloaded the camera with another film, as a further three prints of the train wreck from various angles have the number "6 11" stamped in grey on the back.

Image © and courtesy of

The prints measure roughly 2½" x 1". This appears to correlate rather nicely with the standard 127 film picture size quoted for the Vest Pocket Kodak (manufactured from 1912 and marketed widely as "the soldier's camera") in Todd Gustavson's Camera [2]. However, I suppose it could just as easily have been some other European-manufactured camera using similar film.

Although an extremely popular camera - it was cheap, handy and of solid construction - the shutter speed of the Vest Pocket Kodak and its variants was slow (1/25 or 1/50th sec, depending on aperture setting), requiring a steady hand in poor lighting conditions. Three of the four shots are rather blurred, although clear enough to show the locomotive of the rear train and the demolished coach of the front one, another coach apparently derailed, as well as numerous uniformed soldiers standing and walking around in the snow.

By the time these shots were taken, the camera appears to have suffered some damage, judging by the irregularly shaped dark area at lower left of all four prints. It may even have been knocked about in the train accident itself, and the damage not noticed until later. It is possible that he purchased the camera second-hand just prior to embarking on the voyage back to Canada. There don't appear to be any earlier prints of this size in the collection of his photographs held by my aunt.

I've been searching online newspapers for details of a train crash that might have happened during the troop train's journey westward from Halifax to Winnipeg, where my father was medically examined and discharged, thus far without much success. He, along with 6000 odd other returning soldiers, disembarked from the HMT Olympic on the 17 January 1919, some time after it docked at 11.30 am. A report in The Morning Leader (Regina, Saskatchewan) stated that one train for Calgary and two for Winnipeg (M.D. 10) left Halifax at 1.40 pm, 2.05 pm and 2.40 pm respectively, and The Calgary Daily Herald (Calgary, Alberta) gave the route home as "via Quebec." I know that Leslie had arrived in Winnipeg by 6 February, as his service records indicate that he was examined at Tompkins Hospital, Winnipeg on that date, so presumably the accident happened between those two dates.

Several members of the CEF Study Group Forum have been assisting, via a post on this thread, for which I'm very grateful. If you have any ideas, please feel free to either contribute on the forum (you'll have to register, I'm afraid) or here as a comment.


[1] Macdonald, Gus (1979) Victorian Eyewitness, A History of Photography: 1826-1913, New York: Viking Press, 192p.

[2] Gustavson, Todd (2009) Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital, New York: Sterling Publishing, 360p.

[3] Four photographs of train wreck, taken somewhere in Canada, January 1919, Loose paper prints, approx. 63 x 42.5 mm, Collection of Barbara Ellison.

[4] Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Records for Charles Leslie Lionel Payne, 1989, Library and Archives Canada, Ref. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7671 - 48.


  1. I worked with British Rail after the Clapham Train crash. We were establishing what needed to be done to implement Lord Hidden's recommendations from the incident investigation. I would be very interested to see reports from the incidents you have shown. Great post.

  2. Oh my the other road we all hope to only experience in photos! I have a photo of the first one too, it's in a greeting card form....just had to snap that up...thing is I can't ever part with most of them! Youd did a marvelous job on the oops of railroads! Thanks so much!

  3. Fantastic post Brett. I hope you are able to pin down this train wreck, if anyone can, it's you!

  4. Hi Brett,

    What interesting train wreck photos you have found AND the originals that have been handed down to you from your father are incredible!

    I've read a book based upon the story of the Jonestowne flood, and it was a horrible, horrible catastrophe. Thank you so much for all of your research; this was a very comprehensive and informative post.

    Thanks for stopping by to say hello too.

    Kathy M.

  5. I expect we'll see a follow-up post that identifies this wreck. :)
    I know that there are people who collect nothing but train wreck and/or tram wreck postcards. I find it very interesting.

  6. Now Im eager also to hear the outcome of the identifying of the train wreck photos. Maybe if I have some down time Ill dig around to help in the hunt for info. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Such amazing shots. Massive beasts looking like toy trains fallen off the tracks.

    I remember the fear my grandfather had about a certain wreck in Pennsylvania, it traumatized him. He was an engineer on the PRR and this wreck had happened on a route he usually took.

  8. Wow! such a bunch of wrecks. glad i am not taking a train anytime soon, i would be thinking of these.

  9. from official documents to personal ones, this was an interesting journey. i still wonder how some managed to get into this predicament, like the montparnasse one...
    funny how things evolved. people are still drawn to disasters, but there is no way that authorities nowadays would let people mill around and climb all over the place, which is sheer common sense. also because we often transport hazardous material...

    good show!!

  10. Smashing Photos! Thank You.Great Post.

  11. Absolutely fascinating! Any one of these events would have been enough to on its own but what a wonderful collection, especially with the personal links.

  12. When I was a small boy, my grandfather, who was a yardmaster at Washington DC Union station, took me to see a local train wreck. The sight of the overturned engines and cars with all the scattered debris made a strong impression. I think that trains, and especially steam engines, better define the physics of mass and energy for an ordinary mind than today's rockets and jets. And there are way more songs about trains than planes. I look forward to hearing more about this photo story.

  13. I must say this is a real train wreck of a post. Who would think something that is meant to go in a straight line could up as these did. The piggy back that where little trains come from? About that word colid. I'm quite sure your father finished the word. It is his choice of a declined verb. : we may colide/we have colid. I really enjoyed this post!

  14. Great responses thank you. No progress yet with the train accident time/location but all in good time, as they say. Contributions of ideas, etc. welcome.

    Karen S - I know what you mean. I have many such postcards that, although originally intended for someone in particular, never made it to the postbox. The road to Shangri-La is, I hope, paved with such good intentions.

    Kathy M. - From what I read (and I had to stop myself getting too distracted when writing the blog post) it was catastrophic, and appears to have firmly embedded itself in the nation's consciousness, judging by the number of books, songs, movies, etc. that refer to it.

    MuseSwings - your explanation of the word sounds perfectly plausible (and delightful) to me ... but from the little I knew of my Grandpa, unlikely! If it weren't in the dictionary, well ... enuf sed.


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